The Silent Wealth Killer

To me, coming from you, “Stuff” is a four-letter word… –not Cake

We don’t get too bent out of shape here at FL about language. We’re more interested in maxing out life to cull expletives when they’re the right tools for doing the job of describing how.

Some may criticize us as crass. But we’re really just liberated. We think a bit differently, and so we get extraordinary results.

After all, if “early retirement” were commonplace, it wouldn’t be “early” at all. It’d just be retirement. And financial independence would be like breathing.

For those of us who dare to do it our own way, there is nevertheless a word that gnaws at us. And it ain’t four letters.

It causes all sorts of problems for our first-world, coddled and pampered consumer society.

It’s a one-syllable monster out there terrorizing the balance sheets and square footage of most Americans.

It’s a five-letter stinger that needs a one-letter amputation.

It’s the silent wealth killer.

S-T-U-F, The Silent Wealth Killer
S-T-U-F, The Silent Wealth Killer

It’s stuff. Make that S-T-U-F.

Who among us actually believes we need more S-T-U-F in our lives?

Who reading this sentence, right now, is thinking: “If only I had another couple dozen stuf-things, my life would go from being just all right to super-all-star-duper”?

Who wouldn’t benefit from culling some crap from the everyday experience?

If you or someone you know raised a hand to any of the above questions, please kindly slap said person into a different time zone.

Who’s Bad

“Bad” words become so designated because they reflect what society doesn’t like or, more probably, what we’re broadly uncomfortable with.

But what’s “bad” takes time to get a foothold.

We’re still moored in the lunacy of our Puritanical ancestors, who must have had some serious misgivings about digestion and reproduction. Name a half-dozen “bad” words not dealing with one of those two natural operations and you’ll be charting new linguistic terrain.

How “crap” is somehow considered more offensive than “lazy” is a question that evades reason.

So let me suggest a reasonable – and reasoned – addition to the annals of shifty language: Stuff.

By “stuff” I mean things we buy that aren’t necessities; things that don’t support our real needs; things that are just superfluity.

What more insidious a force is there in eroding financial dreams? You can make an argument for consumer debt. But isn’t that just a symptom of S-T-U-F accumulation?

Get A Head

S-T-U-F is a two-headed monster. One fire-breathing maw takes a chunk from your wallet when you buy the thing. The other sinks its teeth later – because all stuff-things need servicing.

A shiny new Ford F-150, the most popular automobile in the U.S. for about three decades, isn’t just a $30,000 toy that is a one-and-done hit to the old income statement.

Hear That Giant Sucking Sound?
Hear That Giant Sucking Sound?

Its terror reigns long and prosperous.

At a combined EPA average of around 22 mpg, the Ford-tough Diet Coke can on tires sucks around 16 cents worth of dino juice every mile. Insurance runs around $2,400 a year (according to CoverHound). Even ignoring things like the imputed costs of garage storage, oil changes, new tires, cleaning supplies, and the environmental impact of using a cinder block to haul groceries, yearly operating costs are still around $5k.

Should you happen to find a Ford F-150 or similar piece of stupid in your garage, please insert a spoon into your ear and remove the part of brain that convinced you that was a good idea. And maybe run out to trade that thing for an ATM on wheels.

What about other S-T-U-F?

The new coffee set that would be so perfect for when guests arrive at afternoon tea? An extra jacket that’s just so cute? A new watch? New garage/kitchen/bathroom contraptions to make your living much more comfortable? New tchotchkes to adorn the living room?

They’re all tyrannical megalomaniacs on the order of Napoleon: Small they may be but ruthless nonetheless, assassinating your hard-earned francs with their musket fire at the checkout line.

Even for those S-T-U-Fs that don’t have full-size pickup ongoing maintenance costs, the recurring expenses are no less real.

New clothes, contraptions and other consumables crowd out the more important non-stuff things in your life. Those precious knick-knacks demand eye-time or else enter immediate obsolescence. And all new S-T-U-Fs impose upon the everyday brand new decision-making requirements: What to wear with the new watch? Where to store this new contraption for the 99.9% of its life that it sits idle?

We Evolved Into This

We do the thing-accumulation routine time and again because we humans are incredibly bad at balancing short-term and long-term costs and benefits. It’s a simple cognitive bias. It probably helped us evolve from cave dwellers to F-150 owners, but it also left us owning F-150s.

When we were still living in caves and everything was life and death, having a short-term perspective was right on target. Who cares about cholesterol when it’s eat-the-squirrel-or-starve?

The problem is now, in our safe and secure lives at the very tip-top of the food chain in our palatial estates and BMWs, we’re no longer really at risk of starving. Yet we still tend to “over-discount” the future.

We’re pretty good at thinking about how a new pair of shoes will make us feel today and tomorrow. We’re pretty bad at thinking about what the consequences of burning $100 at the mall will be for our long-term financial future.

When we see a shiny new S-T-U-F, our short-term brain gets more hyperactive than a piranha at a sushi buffet. We must have it. To hell with the consequences – we need it.

And, actually, for a little while, we’re better off for having bought that S-T-U-F. We get a rush of feel-good hormones and a sense of accomplishment or belonging or power or whatever upper-level craving the S-T-U-F satisfies. And we gush over it until, like Lennie with his rabbits, the shiny new thing isn’t so shiny or new anymore. We get sad. And so we go out to find another.

This is consumer junkie smack in its purest, darkest form. It leaves us wretched and searching and empty (and poor). We seek another hit. We do it again. It’s the carousel ride from hades.

And every time we take a hit, those ponies drag us a little faster toward dissatisfaction.

Because what we’re really doing is not buying things that actually enhance our lives, build our minds, enrich our spirits, or deepen our relationships. We’re buying the feel-good sensation that S-T-U-F represents: We’ve made it. Or we can keep up with the Joneses. Or we buy things as proxies for the real, actual good life – one in which we’re engaged and happy and loved and free. And, sadly, that species of feel-good sensation is fleeting and false.

It’s the empty calories of economics.

Who Sucked Out the Feeling

Unlike that empty calorie sensation, S-T-U-F skeletons stick around after the ardor fades.

So S-T-U-F accumulates: A crowded coffee table here, an unkempt garage there.

And wealth deteriorates. Our long-term self hates our short-term self. But, hey, we all live in the short-term, and it’s only money, right?

Well, we live in both the short-term and the long-term. Think spending a little too much on clothes or a car or home furnishings isn’t a big deal? Let’s try this experiment.

When do you plan to retire? Age 65 or so? That’s a common benchmark age for retirement because of Social Security considerations. So let’s start there.

Now go back in time and encounter your younger, sexier self at age 20. Got that? There former you are: Invincible, not a care in the world, thinking retirement is for people whose principal transportation is the golf cart and for whom dinner is served at half past noon.

Now say to your earlier self: “Self, that $1,000 you squandered on music/shoes/booze/sweater vests/etc. is the reason I have to retire at age 65 rather than age 63.5. By the way, a sweater vest is never okay.”

Every $1,000 not invested at age 20 adds over a year to your mandatory work sentence. At age 30, that cool grand costs you just over half a year.

RetDaysDelayed

And then, just when you thought it couldn’t get any fuglier, the tyranny of S-T-U-F rears its fanged face again.

The garage is piled to the ceiling with S-T-U-F you can’t access. The cabinets are jammed. The closet looks like Amelda Marcos vomit.

S-T-U-F becomes C-L-U-T-T-E-R.

(C-L-T-R?)

And clutter, aside from its actual financial serving costs – maintenance, storage, etc. – imposes steep psychological tolls on us. It stresses us out in ways that are longer-lasting and more destructive than awkward silence on a first date.

This clutter epidemic probably has it roots in humans’ tendency to face resource scarcity for most of our history. It’s just a recent phenomenon that we actually have too much.

But our tiny human brain doesn’t excuse it.

We know better than to think we’re enhancing our lives with more accumulation of things. It seems to just happen here in our over-pampered modern age.

When you set your life trajectory on consumer junkie autopilot, that’s how it goes.

It’s so much easier to buy and accumulate S-T-U-F. And it seems so hard to get rid of it, even though it’s no surprise to anyone with junk piled high at home that S-T-U-F is an oppressive force.

It wears us down mentally. It distracts us from what’s important. It inhibits creative efforts and impedes cognitive clarity.

There’s a whole field of psychology dedicated to cataloguing what S-T-U-F accumulation does to us. And none of it’s good.

It goes against the grain of our entrenched consumer lifestyle to get into the mode of believing that fewer things will make us happier rather than more things. But which do you prefer?

Uncluttered (i.e., stuff-poor)
Uncluttered (i.e., stuff-poor)
Cluttered (i.e., stuff-rich)
Cluttered (i.e., stuff-rich)

The cluttered one probably cost more on net to get that way. And it definitely costs its occupant more to keep that way when financial and mental costs are tabbed.

So what to do?

Recognize that more S-T-U-F isn’t going to get you the life you want. Quite the contrary.

It’s going to cost you more out of pocket and gum up the works in your life.

Clean, consolidate, clear. And repeat.

Enter into a negotiation with your future self every time you are about to buy something.

Convince that self you’ll both be better off because of the purchase.

So long as your future self doesn’t mind working another 2 years or 5 years or 6 months, go for it! Enjoy that shiny new piece of plastic for 15 minutes!! You’re great!!!

Purge, baby, purge. Trim down your S-T-U-F holdings. Unclutter your life.

Ask the questions: Does this thing make my life more efficient?

Does it compensate me with happiness/utility/etc. sufficient to offset its holding costs?

Would I be better off with the cash this thing can fetch me on Craigslist?

Do I value the simple having of this thing more than the serenity of not having it?

Can I replicate the goodness this thing brings me with a less costly alternative?

The answer to this latter question can be instructive if you’re even a little open-minded about it.

Example: The treadmill in the basement may make you better off because you run on it. And good fitness is a cornerstone of a great FL-kind of life. It might even arguably not be worth enough to liquidate, given the benefits it yields. But wouldn’t your life be even better if you got outside to run in the great wide wilderness as opposed to sucking down stale air while staring at drywall?

Once you begin the great purge, it’s addictive. You start to get a taste of that zen living you thought only appeared in architecture magazines.

And you start to feel suffocated by any remaining crap. So, maybe counter-intuitively, the more you purge, the less new S-T-U-F you’ll want. It’s a virtuous cycle. And we love those.

Go Zero-Sum

There’s an advanced level of S-T-U-F control followed here at Villa Libre. Once your total quantity of S-T-U-Fs is under control and your life is orderly and awesome, follow a BOJO model: Buy-One-Jettison-One. In an orderly disposition, that is.

This model’s worked great for Lord and Lady Libre. And with Little Libre, we’ve been getting amazing success where we feared clutter would be inevitable.

As Little Libre grows into Larger Libre, he needs new baby gear. He’s outgrown the bassinet and now sleeps peacefully in his crib. The swing is outmoded; walker thing is all the rage. And so on. Well, as soon as we got him into his crib, the bassinet went up on CL. Same with the swing, etc. Used clothes get donated as Little Libre expands into larger models.

Cash appears. Happiness builds. Junk is nowhere to be found.

The effect is amazing. There’s just no clutter. Life equilibrium goes on unsullied.

Pity the Fool who doesn’t just annihilate S-T-U-F. When you get your crap under control, life opens up. Everything is better.

Your life awesomeness rises up like a great white from the deep.

Your creativity is unleashed.

Your mind is freed to greater and more happiness-yielding pursuits.

Your discount brokerage account fattens up like a sumo wrestler at KFC.

Your cost of living plummets.

And your grip on financial independence and early retirement will be forever tightened.

Luchadores, drop me some knowledge nuggets in the porcelain comments bowl below: How do you manage the S-T-U-F in your life? I’m always looking for new techniques to keep crap at bay.

‘Til then, live mas, Luchadores.

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